For this next entry in my Mentzer reflection series, I am skipping around in the Basic Red Book to discuss alignment. It's mentioned early on, as you work through the sample adventure as the fighter. It comes up again on page 52, when Mentzer notes that even though one's character is chaotic, the player doesn't need to act wildly. The principle discussion of alignment occupies about one-half of page 55.
Let me preface this with a few things. First, I am not one of those players who hates alignment or thinks it has no place in the game. I think it is useful to have an in game reminder of what constrains a character's actions. And I think it's useful to be able to establish a character or monster's connection to cosmic/supernatural/primeval forces. Second, I really do not like alignment debates. I find few things as tedious as "would the paladin really kill the fleeing orc women" discussion. Finally, this is also an area where my non-gaming/professional interests get in the way a bit, as I've taught and written about moral philosophy.
With all that throat clearing, let me begin with my initial interpretation of how alignment is presented in Mentzer -- as moral philosophy. As presented, the alignments express essential moral beliefs and the consequent prescriptons for behavior. Lawful is belief in order and following rules is natural; one should keep her promises and think about the good of the group. Chaotic is the belief in a lack of order; one should act on impulse and whim, which does not entail group cohesion. Neutral is the belief in balance between the two above forces; individuals and groups must work togehter.
I don't want to spend too much time picking these things apart. They each get a paragraph. This is a game for 12 year olds, not The Metaphysics of Morals. Yet even 12 year olds can likely see that there's no direct relation between a balance between law and chaos (as the central beliefs of neutral are described) and someone "who is most interested in personal survival." That sounds close to what chaotic individuals beleive, actually -- "the individual is the most important of all things." If one thinks about this very much, it all gets tangled up into a big, non-helpful mess. This is one way in which the alignment axes in AD&D is vastly superior, imho.
But maybe we're not really supposed think about this very much. The text equaltes Lawful with good, chaotic with evil, and neutral with some sort of situational ethic (which doesn't make a lot of sense, either). Why couldn't we just have "good", "evil", and "animal" and be done with it?
I am rapidly coming around to the view that the best interpretation of the three alignment system is that it expresses a being's orientation to some greater cosmic order? There are literal forces of law and chaos out there; one's alignment expresses which "team" one is on. That also gives some creedence to the idea of alignment languages; one's cosmic orientation is expressed in how one moves and gestures. Otherwise, I've got nothing to account for those things! There's not much of this "embodiment of cosmic forces" interpretation in Mentzer, however